Column: Citizens should make their voices heard tonight

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 28, 2000

Tonight I hope the Austin City Council chamber is overflowing with loud-mouthed residents.

Thursday, September 28, 2000

Tonight I hope the Austin City Council chamber is overflowing with loud-mouthed residents. I don’t care what they advocate, as long as they are willing to be heard on the very important issue of public safety. That’s right, at 7 p.m. in City Hall, there’s an open meeting on public safety for the city of Austin.

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It’s not often the governing body of a city – or county or state or nation – specifically ask that its citizens come on down and talk to them. But that’s what the council is doing, and this puts the ball in the citizens’ court.

As I understand, the meeting will cover both the Police and Fire Departments, as well as the dispatchers.

The issue is simple – do we, the citizens of Austin, want more, less or the status quo?

It would appear the citizens and the council have pretty much already decided the answer in the case of the Police Department is more. Plans are in the works to hire two additional police officers in the new year, bringing the force up to 30 officers plus three community service officers. Those plans aren’t set in stone yet, however, so additional input surely wouldn’t be rejected.

The Fire Department is the big issue.

The firefighters’ themselves say the answer to the above question is either more or status quo, while city administrators are advocating a decidedly lesser approach. The chief hangs in the middle, politically and personally, and his answer to the question is usually that he will "make it work" no matter what the numbers.

Although the immediate issue with the Fire Department is whether or not to replace the staff member who was dismissed this summer – the city has not included that salary in its 2001 budget – the answer to that question will determine the staffing direction of the Austin Fire Department.

If that position is not allowed for, it means City Administrator Pat McGarvey’s suggestion of allowing the full-time portion of the department to decline through attrition to six people, including the chief and the fire inspector, has been adopted, at least unofficially.

If that position makes it into the budget, it means the city has decided – for now at least – to draw the line in the sand at 11 full-time firefighters. Having 11 ensures that the firehouse is always manned by at least two full-time firefighters, 24-7.

There are larger cities that don’t have any full-time firefighters. There are also smaller cities that have more full-time firefighters that Austin does – Albert Lea springs to mind.

Not an easy decision, but surely Austin’s citizens owe it to themselves to speak their mind.

If you want less taxes and you feel that Austin doesn’t need full-time protection, tell the council. Or, if you feel nervous knowing that there weren’t any full-time firefighters at the station a couple times over the past six months, let them know you think staffing the Fire Department with enough full-time firefighters is important.

Public safety is for everyone, not just business owners or drunk drivers. This is your chance – you, the homeowners and business owners and residents of Austin – to let the city know how much is enough.

Again, the meeting is tonight at 7 p.m., on the lower level of the Municipal Building, at 500 Fourth Ave. NE. Come all – young and old – the building is wheelchair and stroller accessible so no excuses will be accepted and apathy will be assumed.